Let’s all take a moment to be honest with ourselves: jazz can be difficult to listen to sometimes, especially if you don’t happen to know much about it.
It’s also a term that encompasses a huge range of musical styles and more than 100 years’ worth of music.
But the good news is it’s never too late to start listening to and loving jazz. The only thing getting in your way is yourself.
And thanks to the popularity of streaming services, many of which can be used without an account, an enormous number of jazz albums are free to listen to.
Below you’ll find our guide to listening to jazz for beginners. It’s easy to follow and may just help you find a new appreciation for this popular and influential genre of music.
- Leave Your Preconceptions at the Door
- Get to Know the Artists
- Ask the Internet for the Best Albums
- Focus on the Music
- Another Option: The Background Approach
Leave Your Preconceptions at the Door
We recognize that it’s not possible to willfully forget all your previous impressions of a specific topic, but when it comes to jazz, it’s best to limit your cynicism and preconceived notions.
Maybe you’ve come to think that jazz is boring, repetitive, and easy to ignore. But in fact, none of these things are true. It all depends on context and perspective.
If you keep your mind open to new styles of music, then you’ll be much more likely to enjoy many different varieties of jazz.
Never be too quick to criticize something you don’t fully understand.
Get to Know the Artists
Historically speaking, jazz musicians have largely been weirdos, and we mean that in the best way possible.
If you enjoy learning the stories behind popular songs and albums, then you may want to do some research on some of the most famous jazz icons of the 20th century.
Buddy Rich was both one of the most talented drummers of his time and also one of the meanest bandleaders around. Miles Davis sent the heads of record execs spinning when he told them he wanted to title an album Bitches Brew.
Knowing a bit more about jazz musicians may help you to better understand their work and listen to their music with more compassion.
Ask the Internet for the Best Albums
If you’re overwhelmed by the range of jazz on the market today, then don’t be afraid to ask the internet for some album recommendations.
Try to find a style that you really enjoy. For example, if you prefer big-band music, ask about some classic big-band records. If you prefer latin jazz, look for famous bossa nova albums.
We’ve listed three of our favorite beginner jazz albums here:
Undercurrent – Jim Hall and Bill Evans
This is an album of instrumental piano and guitar. There are no vocals on the album at all, and that’s to the album’s benefit.
This is calm, contemplative music that works well in many different scenarios. It’s great for working or studying but also serves as a fun soundtrack for a quiet evening at home.
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
When it comes to famous jazz albums, there aren’t many that can top Kind of Blue.
According to many critics and musicians, this is Miles Davis’s greatest work. It was well received by critics as well as the general public at the time of its release.
The album currently stands at Quadruple Platinum, having sold more than 4 million copies.
A Charlie Brown Christmas – Vince Guaraldi Trio
Vince Guaraldi was a talented jazz pianist and he composed many albums of West Coast-style jazz throughout his career.
But he will always be remembered for his work with the Peanuts series, from classic episodes of Charlie Brown to A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the most beloved holiday specials of all time.
Best of all, this album works just about any time of year. It’s easygoing, relaxing, and showcases some beautiful piano pieces.
Focus on the Music
Now that you’ve picked out some specific jazz albums and musicians to listen to, it’s time to hunker down and focus exclusively on the music itself.
The best way to do this is to cut down on distractions. We’ve listed a few considerations to keep in mind when making an effort to gain a new appreciation for jazz.
Kill the Lights
Try to find a room where you can be alone and turn off the lights. If your room receives a lot of natural light, close your blinds.
It’s the same basic concept as dimming all the lights in a movie theater except for the screen itself.
With less sensory input to distract you, it will be easier to focus on the music and notice its subtle qualities.
Turn Off Your Phone
We’ve all become fairly obsessed with our smartphones. They can provide potentially hundreds of different distractions that could interrupt your listening.
That’s why we recommend that you turn off your phone. Don’t just silence it, don’t just put it on vibrate. Turn off the phone completely.
Stick to Headphones or Quality Speakers
If possible, try to listen to your selections on high-quality speakers or headphones. If you live in a busy building with family or friends, then headphones are probably your best bet, as they can limit external sound.
Even if you don’t have access to high-quality equipment, taking the time to listen through a device other than your built-in computer speakers will make the music much more enjoyable.
Another Option: The Background Approach
If you just don’t have the time to listen to some jazz albums in your spare time or don’t want to put in the effort, you can try an alternative method: the background approach.
All you need to do is make an effort to play jazz as background music when you’re working, exercising, or just hanging out at home.
It’s not likely to be intrusive and distract you from your other activities, but you may notice a few songs that you like more than the rest.
Make note of the song and the artist. At some point in the future, you can refer back to your list and explore these artists in-depth.
For some additional listening tips, check out this article on how to listen to intelligent music.